Tyrrell Prison Work Farm to close for at least six months

Published 11:56 am Friday, September 27, 2019

Closure of the Tyrrell Prison Work Farm would be “a devastating economic blow,” Columbia Mayor James Cahoon wrote to Gov. Roy Cooper, Sen. Bob Steinburg, Rep. Ed Goodwin and state Public Safety deputy secretary Tim Moose on Sept. 25.

The state Department of Public Safety announced Sept. 24 that the local prison, along with two others, would close soon for at least six months.

Reason for the closures is to give relief to understaffed confinement facilities elsewhere, said John Bull, an NCDPS communications officer. He explained that the move is an effort to alleviate a statewide shortage of correctional officers.

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“Staff at the three prisons will be redeployed to others where high vacancy rates exist,” Bull said in a telephone interview Sept. 25. “The 130 employees at Tyrrell Work Farm will be offered employment at no loss of pay at other prisons in the vicinity. This is temporary and the action will be re-evaluated in six months.”

Mayor Cahoon’s concern, among other things, is for Columbia’s budget.

“Revenue from the prison constitutes approximately 30% of our current water/sewer department budget,” Cahoon told the governor and others. “A closure of the prison here (temporary or permanent) will be a devastating economic blow to our town water/sewer department and the town’s budget.”

The town’s anticipated water/sewer revenue is $727,384, thus a 30% reduction of more than $218,000 would require drastic cutbacks and/or sharply increased user rates to maintains the system’s viability. State law prohibits the use of property tax revenues to augment enterprise funds such as the water/sewer budget.

“We are already economically depressed as a Tier 1 county,” Mayor Cahoon went on, “and recently lost one of our major businesses [Whitecap Linen Service] that affected our revenues for water/sewer services, representing a loss of 20% of the water/sewer budget.”

Bull said the prison closure was not a local decision but predicated on the 30-35% vacancy rate among correctional officers in the eastern part of state versus 21% statewide.

“The situation cried out for relief for those working overtime and facing burnout, which in a correctional officer is very much a safety issue,” Bull explained. “We’re asking those at Tyrrell and the other facilities to make a sacrifice to help others elsewhere to deal with the vacancy issue.”

Tyrrell Sheriff Kevin Sawyer strongly disagreed with the state’s decision to redeploy employees.

“Only Government would think that making staff drive an extra hour to work would relieve staffing shortages,” the sheriff stated in a press release Friday. “The additional expense to already overworked and underpaid personnel will be tremendous.”

Sawyer, a career law enforcement officer, suggested “other options, such as reducing the population of gang members shipped to minimum custody facilities, are viable. This would lessen pressure on overworked staff and reduce risk. Increasing disciplinary authority and remedies available to the officers would allow for more control over inmates who violate rules. The effect would be an increase in morale among the Correctional Staff.”

Tyrrell Prison Work Farm opened in 1998 on 200 acres purchased by Tyrrell County from the late Dr. Hal Chaplin, a Columbia native then residing in New Bern, for $600,000 and donated to the State of North Carolina. It has a maximum capacity of 620 male offenders under minimum custody. Then-Senator Marc Basnight was instrumental in locating the facility in Tyrrell County.

The other two prisons to be shuttered are Odom Correctional Institution (300 beds) south of Jackson in Northampton County and Hoke Correctional Institution (248 beds) near Raeford. Both are minimum custody facilities for male offenders.

Statewide, 55 confinement facilities house about 35,000 offenders, Bull said.



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